A shepherd’s village

It is a balmy afternoon in late September.  Lying on the edge of the Cindrel Massif, the village of J basks under a cobalt sky.  From some angles, its houses look as if they are going to tumble into the Transylvanian Plateau, 600 metres below, and its terracotta roofs are like tentacles that grip the sandy ridges of the worn-down hills.

If first impressions make J look precarious, they are deceptive.  This is an energetic, closely-knit community.  Sure, there are tensions between the old and the new part of the village – ‘new’ applies to the district called Bordeaua only because, unlike the other quarters which trace their origins to the 14th century, Bordeaua began in the 18th, when its inhabitants, miners for the most part, came south-east from the Apuseni Mountains to find a new life as wood-cutters and farmers.

You only have to walk along J’s main street to see how vibrant it is: firstly, there are the prosperous looking houses, built cheek by jowl following the Saxon fashion.  They present a formidable, united front, even if the old lime-washed, wooden homes are vanishing in favour of brasher, concrete edifices with chrome balustrades, uPVC windows and psychedelic colours.  Many of J’s town houses are more like villas than farmsteads, and some proudly proclaim their owners’ names in plaques over the gated courtyards.  Each household is a mini-fortress, and going inside is like entering a fiefdom.  These courtyards are usually spotlessly spic and span, with pretty plants in borders or pots, wafting sweet scents across the earthier ones of cow and horse dung that come up from the streets.

Secondly, there are the people themselves.  If you meet them in the street, they are often openly curious, and will want to know who you are and where you come from.  To a diffident visitor this attitude can seem confrontational, and sometimes the question is put rudely, but more often it is the result of simply wanting to know.  If you visit the villagers at home, you will be treated like royalty, and offered the best in terms of food and drink that the house can manage.  These are hard-working folk, used to heavy physical labour, and they know that a body cannot survive unless it eats.  So, the words that ring in my ears most often are, “Mancati!”  (“Eat!”)  and “Ce pot sa va dau?”  (“What can I give you?”).  Their hospitality is as natural as breathing.

So far, J has not fallen prey to the disease which affects so many other rural communities across eastern Europe when their youngsters leave.  J’s population numbers about 6000, and the age range is very wide.

It was August 2011, and my first visit to one of J’s sheepfolds.  For cognoscenti, the fold would have been satisfying on its own, but, devoted as I was to things sheepish, I would have had to be blind to ignore the charms of this village, its people and legends.  Besides, J and its neighbours are the fountain head, the Mecca, and the Washington DC of Romanian sheep farming rolled into one.  Mention J or Poiana in the same breath as sheep, and people fall back with respect.  Uttering their names shows that you know a thing or two.

Links between these particular villages and shepherding are said to go back to Dacian times, and some historians believe that pastoralism in this part of the Carpathian Mountains began in the Mesolithic Age. You can believe what you want, of course, but in my mind’s eye it is easy to conceive of the sheepskin-clad mocani (which is what shepherds round here are called) herding sheep in these parts since the end of the last great freeze. During the communist period, J and other mountain villages managed to escape its worst rigours and they became famous – or notorious – for their comparative wealth. Shepherds benefitted from fixed prices for milk, meat and wool, and able to avoid some of their taxes, did rather well.  People who came up from the plateau to work in J and its neighbours spoke of “going to America”.  Rumours of cow stalls lined with black marble, four-storey mansions with lifts, and shiny, four-wheel drive cars hiding behind the courtyard gates became rife.  The times were favourable to transhumant shepherds too: they could wander more or less at will, and some managed to bribe the officials in state and collective farms into letting them avoid paying the going rate for grazing.  A story still does the rounds of a certain inhabitant of Poiana who asked Ceausescu for permission to buy a helicopter so that he could keep a better eye on his flocks, which were so numerous that they spread over several mountains at once.

Having a few days to spare, and nowhere else to go, I decided to get to know J better.  Soon, I will be writing about the people I have met there.  To whet your appetites, they include two poets, a sheepskin cloak maker, and several musicians.  Oh, and not forgetting some of the Baiesi, J’s Gypsies, who live in their own enclave from which they view the world quite differently.

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